People line up in their cars in the Pendleton Convention Center parking lot

People line up in their cars in the Pendleton Convention Center parking lot in Umatilla County, Oregon, in this Jan. 28, 2021, photo to get vaccinated against COVID-19. School staff, including teachers and support staff, health care workers and other publicly employed workers must show proof of vaccination to meet the state mandate for vaccination by Oct. 18. Medical and religious exemptions may be allowed.

PENDLETON — An overwhelming majority of Pendleton School District staff will be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the state’s Oct. 18 deadline. But a contingent of district employees are using religious exemptions to avoid getting the shot while keeping their jobs.

At a Tuesday, Oct. 5, school board meeting, Superintendent Chris Fritsch shared a report that showed nearly 9 out of 10 education workers were vaccinated against the virus. Collectively, 87.5% of district employees are vaccinated or will be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

There isn’t much separation in vaccination rates between types of employees, either: certified staff (teachers, counselors and administrators were vaccinated at an 89.7% rate while classified staff (secretaries, assistants, custodians, maintenance and district office staff) had an 84.5% rate.

In an interview after the meeting, Fritsch said the vaccination rate is higher than expected.

“We’re in a better position than a lot of other districts,” he said.

Although more than 10% of district staff remained unvaccinated, most won’t be forced out of work following the deadline. Thirty two staff — 15 certified and 17 classified — secured religious exemptions to the vaccine. Another five were granted medical exemptions, although three are only temporary.

The exemption process is spelled out in agreements between the district and its unions for teachers and classified staff. Religious exemptions require an employee to write and sign a statement “explaining why the employee is requesting a religious exception, the religious principle(s) that guide the employees objections to the vaccination, and the religious basis that prohibits the COVID-19 vaccination.”

Medical exemptions require a note from a medical provider explaining the health condition that prevents the employee from getting the vaccine. Fritsch said employees with temporary medical exemptions will be given 45 days to get the vaccine once their exemption ends to account for the waiting period between shots for two-dose vaccines.

When it comes to evaluating religious exemption requests, the district can go as far as ask employees for religious materials or a statement from a religious leader to explain why they need an exemption. While the district has sometimes asked staff to clarify their request, Fritsch said the district hasn’t tried to determine what is and isn’t a sincerely held religious belief.

“We didn’t go in-depth,” he said. “We didn’t question that.”

Unvaccinated staff that have an exemption not only are still required to wear a mask while working at school, but will need to wear a district-issued KN-95 mask instead of a mask brought from home. Fritsch said the district will not require unvaccinated staff to get tested every week.

While the district’s Oct. 5 report didn’t include school volunteers, the state also requires they get vaccinated. Unlike paid staff, Fritsch said they will not be granted any exemptions to getting the vaccine.

Ultimately, three staff — one certified and two classified — chose to resign rather than get vaccinated. In the most recent case, Fritsch said the employee tried to secure a medical exemption, but when their doctor wouldn’t sign off on it, they submitted their resignation instead.

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